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The art of conversation

Former educational psychologist and language development specialist Fleur Griffiths has been visiting nurseries to help improve children's oral skills. Here she explains her approach

I sit at a round table with four little chairs drawn up around it and am ready for children to choose to talk with me. I am available in the nursery as a choice alongside painting, house corner, construction or play dough.

I wear a blue tunic with coloured pockets from which peep enticing objects.

My favourite companion is a beany bear who invites curious questions about his name, his bandaged paw or party hat. As the children handle him in turn around the circle, they can decide to make him jump, dance, wave, clap hands, curl up or go to sleep. He is expressive enough to look sad, tired or happy to reflect the children's moods.

Some children say what they are doing given a lead like "I can make Teddy..." For the silent actors, I can do a simple commentary. At the end of such a round, I can use him like a puppet to create the story of his journey. The children will answer for him or nod to approve my version of their involvement. I introduce the story with the age-old opening, "Once upon a time". Thus we create a story around a shared experience. We make sense together.

In another pocket, I have a blue visitors' book in which I can enter the names of the children as they sit down. This gives each child a sense of importance within the group. It makes for a sense of belonging to a circle of friends. Exchanging names is the basis for any communication and allows me to introduce and explain myself as well. For children to converse comfortably, it is useful for them to attract attention by using names.

Writing names establishes an orderly routine, a leisurely pace and a focus on each in turn. The record is also useful as it shows up frequent visitors and the occasional child who might need a gentle introduction to participate.

Being mindful that children have many ways of expressing themselves, I cover the table with a piece of paper to add drawing, mark-making and colour.

Offering a choice of colour pens to each child one at a time again establishes the turn-taking pattern of listening and speaking. There is no need to teach concepts such as colour, for a round like this indicates who knows and who needs the verbal label to be attached to their choice. More important than knowing the concept is using colour for expression and having a watchful adult voicing the mood of flowing lines or angry stabs of the pen. Putting words to such moods is the first step towards emotional literacy.

The joint paper charts the process. What appears to be scribble represents pathways, journeys, mazes, enclosures, anger, water, fire, speed - all the ingredients of a possible narrative. We can link individual parts to the whole. My drawing is there too to talk about, and I can scribe key words or ideas. Real objects such as dinky cars or Lego people can interact with the drawings, and the expression is therefore multi-modal.

Encouraging children to visit each other's "worlds" on the paper before them gives me the chance to model the rules of courtesy and social negotiation. We can problem solve and resolve territorial fights.

To bring matters to a close, I can tell or pretend-write the story in the middle with the children joining in. We often roll up the paper to signal the end and allow a new start for other children. Farewells are as important as greetings and these need to be modelled as well.

Other treasures in my pockets can spark off different experiences: a spider in a box, a sparkling jewel, a spinning top, a magnifying glass, a mirror or a chime. So that communication can be more reciprocal, the children are allowed to bring a pocketsize treasure of their own from home to "show and tell". This has been arranged by letters home to parents telling them of my aim to encourage language development and inviting them to meet me half an hour before hometime to hear what has happened. I can share the large papers with them and additionally sometimes have digital photos and tape recordings.

How did this all come about? I was employed in Hartlepool LEA on a sessional basis to undertake a project to tackle low levels of language use in nurseries in this urban area. This was in response to Ofsted reports noting poor base-line language assessment results with the knock-on effect on literacy results. The starting point for the project was the assumption that oral competence provides a sure foundation for literacy skills.

I came as a visitor to a nursery once a week for six consecutive weeks for the whole nursery day. A preliminary visit agreed the context for the "Talking Table" and involved staff and parents in the proposal. Guidelines about conversational principles and mediational strategies were available as handouts. This was to be an inclusive intervention, not singling out those with particular difficulties but open to all children and parents.

An unexpected outcome was that the children the school would have picked out for special help volunteered themselves more readily, possibly needing the reassurance of the concerned and listening adult alongside. Parents reported that their children came more happily to nursery on Wednesdays clutching their secret treasures in their pockets. Anxious parents were the ones who tended to turn up early to hear news and air their own concerns around another "Talking Table" for them.

Parental comments collected as part of an evaluation testified to changes in attitude and confidence:

"A has come out of herself a lot. She is keen to bring things on Wednesdays to talk about."

"N's confidence is rising. He is ready to tell me things that have happened in nursery like the spider losing its leg and being put in the bin!"

Evaluation of such an intervention is difficult given the complexity of such group experiences involving the whole class, staff and parents. But if numerical data is needed, staff can track individuals and count instances of conversation starters and responses. Non-verbal expressions can also be noted.

Further evidence of enduring changes comes with my follow-up visits. I find the "Talking Table" has become part of the nursery layout and sessions are run by parents, assistants and even by able children themselves as they go into Reception. Sometimes, the teacher wears a special hat or cloak to signal spells of "talking time". Shortage of adults means that the parent sessions are hard to maintain but some parents have become regularly involved.

On a visit a year later to St John Vianney Nursery, I found the "Talking Table" drawings in the foyer. The "Talking Table" practice continues with letters home suggesting bringing more specific items such as something from the baker's shop or a leaf from the park. This has led to parents and children going on outings and talking about their finds and choices. The Reception teacher believes that a strong oral foundation - and she will give the time to build it - serves the interests of the literacy hour, which can comfortably wait.

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